When Ubisoft initially launched the HAWX series, there was a lot of hope for what it might become. After all, the franchise was going to boast a Tom Clancy license, and when it comes to military hardware, that's a name that carries a lot of clout. The first game in the series further built up our hopes, offering a fundamental yet enjoyable arcade dogfighting game with flashes of brilliance. We were on the edge of our seat for the sequel, Tom Clancy's HAWX 2, but unfortunately, rather than feeling the thrill of the wild blue yonder, we got a missile shoved up our tailpipe.
Where the original HAWX put players in futuristic aircraft with cutting-edge technology, HAWX 2 opts instead for standard issue planes that feel practically identical. When jumping from a MiG to a Harrier, players should sense a difference in speed and maneuverability, but what they get is two practically identical planes with different weapon load-outs. Throughout the shortish campaign, players will jump from one aircraft to another without really feeling an appreciable difference in most cases. After a while, you stop noticing which plane you're going to fly because it just doesn't matter.
Getting the planes off the ground and into the combat zone wields an uneven mix of highs and lows. Some stages are thrilling, such as racing through a canyon under enemy fire while piloting an unarmed jet or taking over the gunner's seat of an AC-130 and providing cover for a rescue squad. Others are painfully boring, like the majority of UAV missions, which mostly consist of little more than tagging target buildings and eavesdropping on conversations. These stages were clearly meant to break up the pace and provide players with a chance to breathe, but they ultimately manage to be little more than interactive story moments that can only be failed if you stop paying attention for a solid five minutes.
In addition to these varying mission types, most levels in HAWX 2 feature some sort of takeoff, landing or mid-mission refueling segments that provide an extra wrinkle of challenge. While your first unassisted landing on an aircraft carrier may feel badass, you'll quickly find that all these segments have been massively simplified, so it's harder to fail than it is not. As a consequence, they quickly lose the magic they hold and change from opportunities into chores. While a couple of the taxi/takeoff sections feature certain circumstances to make them more challenging, the concept doesn't really pan out as a gameplay mechanic.
Most levels fall into the middle ground between these extremes and boil down to the same dogfights and bombing runs we've been playing since the dawn of air combat games. Shoot down this squadron and blow up that building, defend this aircraft; it's all the same old song and dance. While HAWX 2 manages to competently portray such mechanics, there are some glaring flaws that make stages much more frustrating than they have any right to be.
Perhaps the biggest offender is awful wingmate AI, which does little more than provide a few more planes in the sky to clutter up the action. Players will often find themselves swarmed by a half-dozen enemy fighters (no joke), with absolutely no assistance to be found. The issue could be alleviated if friendlies would venture over to help get the bandits off your back, but they're too busy flying in circles or bombing harmless mountaintops to offer any help. Even more frustrating, when teammates manage to actually jump in and fight, they do pitiful amounts of damage, meaning players will almost invariably have to finish off all the foes anyway. With friends like these, who needs enemies?
Further exacerbating the frustration of flying is uneven enemy AI, which proves to be either dumb as rocks or smarter than any machine. Most foes are easy prey for a missile lock or cannon burst, but in later stages, the switch gets flipped and opponents are ridiculously powerful. These fighters seem to have an infinite number of chaffs to throw off your missile locks (while you, by contrast, have five) and can pull off maneuvers which, if attempted in your plane, would cause stalls, flatspins and various other methods of horrible death. Those problems also don't account for the fact that most missions are timed, so while you're spending 15 minutes trying to avoid missile locks and clearing out some breathing room, friendly ground forces are being decimated or important enemy targets are slipping away. The end result is a game that can get incredibly frustrating in a hurry.
The saving grace of HAWX 2 is its depth, which entices players to come back long after they've suffered through the mediocre campaign. Arcade mode takes you back to story missions but changes the rules, sometimes putting you at a marked disadvantage but occasionally providing you with superior firepower and a license to run wild. This mode puts a fresh twist on things and opens the door for a lot of fun possibilities. There's also a Survival mode, which is exactly what it sounds like: you versus increasingly tougher wings of enemies in an attempt to see how long you can hold out.
On the multiplayer front, the game follows the recent trend of leveling and perks, allowing those who participate in enough battles and rack up enough kills to upgrade their planes with better weapons and armor and other little touches that make it easier to wipe out competitors. Of course, the downside to all this is that newcomers are easy pickings in most matches, but those who stick it out and earn the best equipment will become quite the force with which to be reckoned.
Unfortunately, the few high points in Tom Clancy's HAWX 2 don't do enough to make up for its myriad shortcomings. What once started out as a promising franchise has devolved into a muddled mess, and we can only hope that Ubisoft turns things around for the next edition of the series. This game is a decent rental for those who love the Tom Clancy brand or the air combat genre, but it does very little to warrant much interest beyond that.
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